The beauty of concealed scholarship

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Wilhelmus à Brakel offers some good advice to the gospel minister:
He ought to use all his scholarship to formulate the matters to be presented, in order that he might express them in the clearest and most powerful manner. While using his scholarship, however, he must conceal his scholarship in the pulpit. To labor to be reputed as being scholarly, and to bring much Latin into the pulpit for this purpose, is only a seeking of self. Every word of Latin is nothing but a pound of flesh (that is, carnality) and is frequently held in contempt by scholarly divines, whose objective it is to make themselves pleasing to the consciences of men by the revelation of the truth. I am not now referring to the practice of extracting the full meaning of the original Hebrew and Greek words.
The balance of this statement is praiseworthy: à Brakel is clearly not against scholarship, and specifically excludes from censure the practice of extracting the full meaning of the original Hebrew and Greek words of a text. When explaining a passage, the preacher must possess as much as he is able of the meaning of the text, but he must also be able clearly to communicate that meaning to the congregation before him without parading his understanding. Of course, the congregation needs to have confidence in him that he is handling the Word of God well and honestly, but this can be done without a carnival of public scholarship. When true learning is properly consecrated it is also largely concealed.

I recall that in mathematics lessons at school, the mantra used to be often repeated, "Show your working." What is appropriate in the maths class is not in the pulpit. The pulpit is not for the display of intellect, but the fruits of it; not for the show of working, but for the product of the work. As a rule, we do not need to and should not bring our tenses and our stems and our prefixes and suffixes into the pulpit. As a rule, we do not need to and should not call holiness pietas, or remind people that opera trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt. It may sound impressive, it may get us a reputation for learning, but the question must be: did the hearer understand? Was the hearer impressed by you, or by the plain truth you preached? In all honesty, you can be as pompous in English as you can in Latin, Greek or Hebrew. There are plenty of 'pastor-scholars' out there who might leave their people impressed at how much learning they have, how much reading they have done, how much erudition they have, and what magnificent words they know, without actually profiting their souls by the clear communication of truth. Such a man may be a scholar, but it remains to be demonstrated that he has the heart of a pastor. Such an attitude reminds you of the possibly apocryphal story of Richard Baxter, of whom it is alleged that he used to preach a sermon once a year in which he displayed the full force of his learning, flying determinedly above the heads of his people in order to remind them of how little they knew. One might wish with some men that the reverse was true, and that once in a while they would deign to step off the clouds and - just for a few minutes - join the rest of us mortals tramping through the clay.

Recent discussions about the place and purpose of seminary need to take into account that much of what passes for gold in the seminary environment turns into tripe in the pulpit, where all the brilliance and erudition that the seminary demands in order to attain its honours needs to be sublimated to the task of preaching the plain truth plainly. That learning cannot and must not be abandoned, but its display needs to be sacrificed on the altar of usefulness. One of the dangers of the seminary is that gifted men may leave it well able to deliver a very competent lecture to their fellow-graduates, but with very little clue as to how to deliver a straightforward sermon to Christ's hungry flock. The display of learning must be unlearned without unlearning the learning itself. While the particular environment and situation certainly play a part - if you are preaching to a congregation of seminary graduates, you might allow a little more of the learning to bubble to the surface, and there may be occasions on which little more technical information must be supplied for the sake of clarity - the great goal must be the expression of the truth in what à Brakel calls "the clearest and most powerful manner."

I recall the story of an eminent scholar in Northern Ireland, the adornment of his denomination in terms of scholarly attainment. This gentleman had in his rural congregation a manual labourer who had left school without any academic qualifications (it may even have been that he had little or no formal schooling at all). The pastor-scholar found out that the labourer was also a preacher, going out when opportunity provided to speak the truth to men and women like himself in the farms and villages round about. Intrigued, the pastor-scholar asked the labourer-preacher where he found the time to prepare and the material to employ. The labourer-preacher blushed and replied to this effect: "Well, sir, I just take the sermon you preached before and dress it up a bit."

Might I suggest that few greater compliments might have been paid to the pastor-scholar than this? It is no pleasure to the proud heart in the pulpit, but the congregation which never realises how brilliant its minister is may have more for which to be thankful than the congregation which boasts in the displayed brilliance of its minister.

Let ministers be scholars indeed, and "use all [our] scholarship to formulate the matters to be presented," but let us abandon any desire for a mere reputation for scholarship: the minster "must conceal his scholarship in the pulpit." The food - though it might need to be gathered from the topmost branches of the trees - must be set at the level of the guests: Christ's people are sheep, not giraffes, and the sheep must be fed as sheep, even if it means that the minister can no longer publicly display his ability to climb or demonstrate how high up he can get.
Posted May 8, 2012 @ 4:33 AM by Jeremy Walker


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